Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, better known for an embarrassing personal scandal than a great 2012 season in which he was the Heisman Trophy runner up, seems realistic about what he must accomplish this week at the National Football League Scouting Combine.
In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY’s Jim Corbett in Bradenton, Fla., while preparing for Combine workouts, Te’o said his infamous involvement with a fake online girlfriend won’t impact his status in the April draft.
That closely matches the opinion of scouts, who mostly agree that Te’o’s once phenomenal reputation already has been irreparably devalued. The naivety and immaturity shown by how he mishandled his personal crisis removed the lustre most scouts associated with Te’o, whose ratings were enhanced by the perception of sensational intangibles that gave potential to be a team and locker room leader.
But his on-field abilities still rate him as one of the top two inside linebackers, which, like all other players at the combine, he must validate with his workouts. Pre-combine projections by NFLDraftScout.com rank Te’o second among inside linebackers, behind LSU underclassman Kevin Minter. Both are considered late first or early second-round picks.
However, they could move up if either or both make the right impression.
“I have to just go out there and perform, and all that other stuff is behind me,” Te’o told Corbett. “What I did on the field is what I did on the field. I don’t think what I did with this whole situation; I don’t understand how it takes away from what I did on the field.
“As far as my stock dropping or rising, that’s not up to me. The only thing I have to do is just do well, run fast, just be myself, be quick.”
NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang agrees. Rang is still impressed more by what Te’o can do on the field rather than what happened off it.
“Teams will be comforted by his passion. Anybody I’ve ever talked to about him says he’s just naive. “He’s a good football player. I still have him going in the first round -- to Baltimore (at pick No. 32).”
NFL Network draftnick Mike Mayock, believes Te’o’s biggest challenge may come during the 15-minute interviews with team executives, who will stare into his eyes while trying to peer into his soul as they ask tough questions about the celebrated off-field issue.
“I would tell Te’o you better look people in the eye, and I know you’re going to be embarrassed and I know it’s going to be uncomfortable,” Mayock said in a telephone interview. “All the way up through the draft, it’s not going to be a comfortable situation for this kid. But don’t be embarrassed.
“I think he’s a good kid, and I think he made a mistake, and he’s naive and all that stuff, but don’t back away. You did what you did. Look people in the eye, tell them your story, and let the tape do the talking for you. Your tape over four years, your performance this weekend, run your tail off, and it’s going to be uncomfortable, but be honest.”
Mayock echoes sentiments of many scouts who say Te’o has forever lost the ability to convince anybody, including his fellow players, that he has the ability to be an extraordinary team leader, one who commands respect in the locker room that is reserved for a rare few, such as Ronnie Lott or Ray Lewis.
“Most of us have made mistakes at age 21, and the kid’s naive, and it’s embarrassing,” Mayock said. “But it shouldn’t really hurt the kid because it’s not like one of those major things where you say we can’t have him on our team. Some other teams are going to look at him and say he lied to his father. He had a chance when he found out about what really happened, he had a chance to tell the nation, and he lied to the nation. And do you want a liar in your locker room?
“Most teams feel the former, and I know a few teams that they told me they’d be concerned about a liar in the locker room. ... Until is that story became public, he had a plus, plus, plus intangible grade. Was he going to become Ray Lewis? Could he galvanize a locker room? He had a huge intangible grade that would push his on-the-field grade higher. I think he’s lost all of that. At best, it’s now going to be neutral. Just, hey, what kind of player you are, and where can we slot you?”
And that’s what Te’o may determine this week, both on and off the field.